You’ve spent your life working hard, accumulating as much wealth for your family as possible. If you’re like most people, all that hard work and saving was directed toward one primary goal: the security of your loved ones. It’s satisfying to consider the nest egg you’ve built to provide for your family when you’re no longer able to, but troubling to imagine them fighting over it.
Depending on your family dynamic and history, money can be a very sensitive subject to address, and never more so than when it involves inheritance. Many parents avoid discussing their estate plans with their adult children, out of discomfort, fear that they will be challenged or questioned, or simply a belief that their children already understand, or don’t need to know, their financial plans. It’s true that leaving adult children to learn of your estate plan after your death lets you “opt out” of a potentially uncomfortable conversation. It’s also true, unfortunately, that failing to explain your motivations or answer their questions while you’re alive can complicate their grief and cause family rifts that may never heal. The last thing you want to do is provide your children with financial security while stripping away the security of close family bonds.
Equal Shares, Peaceful Heirs
Rightly or wrongly, children, even adult children, tend to equate the size of a bequest with how much their parent loved them. There are a number of legitimate reasons you may want to leave one child more money than another, including:
- One child may have provided care for you or your spouse during a lengthy illness or period of disability
- One child may have worked in the family business, while others pursued different careers
- One child may earn significantly less money than another, and you want to provide for his or her security
- One child may have special needs and need extra support
- You may have loaned one child, but not others, money during your life and want to even things out with estate planning
If it’s your intention to leave one child more money or assets than the others, don’t leave them to wonder or assume why you did so. Provide an explanation while you are alive and they can ask questions, so they will understand that you were not motivated by greater love for one child over another. Otherwise, any anger they feel is likely to be directed not at the deceased parent, but at their sibling, and will eat away at that relationship.
However, most experts recommend that, if at all possible, you distribute your wealth equally among your heirs. Likewise, if you feel one heir needs the financial protection of having his inheritance in a trust, don’t give the others their property outright. Unequal treatment breeds resentment.
Little Things Mean a Lot
Often, the squabbling that occurs over inherited property is not over real estate, stocks and bonds, but over the handmade lace tablecloth Grandma crocheted, or the china figurine that sat on Mom’s mantelpiece. Don’t underestimate the importance of sentimental items, and the fights that can break out over them. Either leave children certain treasured items in equal measure, or allow them to choose their own, starting with one child and proceeding in a rotation until everything has been chosen.
Whatever you do, don’t verbally promise the same item to multiple children. This is a surefire way to set them up for a dispute.
Good Communication is Essential
As hard as it can be to initiate a discussion of your estate plan with your children, it’s essential that you do so. It may be best to have the conversations one-on-one with each child, but be sure you keep your message consistent. You don’t need to justify your decisions, but be open to questions. As much as possible, avoid discussing one child’s needs, problems, or shortcomings with any of the others. Above all, reiterate the message that you love all your children equally, and that the most important legacy you want to leave them is a strong family bond.
If you need help deciding how to distribute your assets so your heirs won’t fight over them, or deciding how to talk to them about their inheritance, talk to an experienced Oakland County estate planning attorney to learn more about how you can help your family avoid fighting over assets. Attorney Jim Hubbert has helped numerous clients with estate planning to preserve both family wealth and family harmony.